What makes a good politician?

What an unholy mess. On one side of the ditch, the cost of Brexit appears to be going up and up and up, with Europe expected to call in 50 billion quid’s worth of UK liabilities, and a relatively trifling 1.5 billion pound fine from OLAF (EU fraud watchdog) on the UK for allowing Chinese goods to flood the European market. And on the other side, there’s Trump, who seems incapable of getting through a single 48 hour period without breaking anything.

I look at these fiascos, and I wonder if John Key wasn’t such a bad guy after all. We could say that the worst that he did was to preside over one of the greatest transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich that the country has ever seen. Asset sales; regressive tax policies; high immigration; low infrastructural investments; and suspended contributions to the superannuation fund all contributed to a widening gap between New Zealand’s rich and poor.

We should also remember that he ripped the guts out of the resource infrastructure for victims of domestic abuse, imposed national standards on most schools while channeling government money into standards-free charter schools, and encouraged through looser RMA regulations the removal of native trees.

It’s a dreadful record, which has left hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders worse off (including leafy New Zealanders).

But for the most part, those were all things he said he was going to do. Ok, he probably kept shtum on cutting back the support to victims of domestic violence. But for the most part, he was clear about his agenda, and effective in delivering it. The fact that the agenda was not to my liking, nor to the liking of most people I know, is another matter.

The only thing on his agenda which he really messed up was the flag. But at least that didn’t represent any real crisis (although it might have, had his preferred flag won the day). It was just an enormous bloody cock-up and a total waste of lots of money.

Look, all I’m saying is that his political legacy was one of systematically taking from the poor to give to the rich, and that that was what he said he was going to do, ok? He didn’t exactly plunge the country into tumultuous, warlike chaos. He just made it worse, in lots of ways, for lots of people. There’s an important difference!

Nick Smith, Bill English.

Joking aside, and moving right along, if my elected leaders are going to be ones I disagree with on most key policy areas, I’m still going to prefer the ones who can meet their own agendas. We may live on a small, polluted island with no infrastructure, filthy water and unaffordable houses, but at least we’re not Britain or America.

In fact, out our way in West Auckland, we’re becoming spoilt for choice. There is an abundance of strong, young, female political talent coming to the fore.

Three of them are Green Party candidates. Hayley Holt is standing in Helensville. While a bookie might pay long odds on her clinching the seat, there’s no doubt she’ll galvanise a strong share of the party vote.

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Leilani Tamu

In New Lynn, there is Leilani Tamu: a former New Zealand diplomat, a Fulbright scholar and a published poet. Leilani is well connected in the west Auckland Pasifika community. Labour’s Deborah Russell will lose votes to her, and she’ll take plenty of party votes off both National and Labour. While David Cunliffe served his electorate well, Labour’s stock is on the wane here from all sides. National is currently winning the party vote race in New Lynn.

Over in Te Atatu, the Greens have Golriz Ghahraman. She’s a human rights lawyer and former UN prosecutor in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and one of the few (if only?) political candidates to have entered the country on a refugee visa.

Again, it’s unlikely that she’ll unseat Labour’s incumbent Phil Twyford. But she’ll dent his support, and – I suspect – National’s Alfred Ngaro’s. At any rate, I predict she’ll lift the Green’s party vote in that neighbourhood.

All three of these Green candidates are people I’d vote for. That is, the candidates look like the right people with the right agendas. Whether they’re good at achieving their political agendas may be a moot point: it’s a long way from the Green Party list to parliament, and the list has yet to be ranked (which is done by the members). So their immediate agenda is to raise the party vote for the Greens. At that, there is no doubt in my mind, all three will succeed.

 

Swimming in the sub-standards

So our primary school is in hock to it’s swimming pool, which needs somewhere between $40k and $80k spent on it. Cracking, apparently. And if we don’t fix it, we’re forced to decommission it, which – and this hurts – will cost a great deal more.

I haven’t yet learned how this works with the Ministry of Education. All I know is that they’ve given us until the end of term 1 to get it together: about 5 weeks from now. After that, by some process which I dread to imagine, we’re forced to cough up for decommissioning it. Maybe it’s simply that if we don’t fix it, it all ends up sliding down the hill. Hard to say how rotten that would be.

So, we might regard this burden as the reality of a low-tax economic regime. What the government loses in tax, it makes up for in crowd-funded swimming pools. Or, we might look at it from a curriculum point of view: there’s no national standard in swimming, so perhaps the schools have no place teaching it. Can anyone really take that line seriously?

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Maori and Pakeha Boys at School Swimming Pool, 1970. Photo: G Riethmaier, courtesy Archive NZ, under creative commons licence

Kaurilands School is not alone in this predicament. Campbell Live had a piece last week about a school in Glen Innes with a similar problem, and apparently there’s well over a hundred such around the country.

So if this is a rock star economy, why on Earth can we not afford the same – or more – school pools that we could in the 1960s?

I was lucky: I was bought some lessons in the Mt Eden pool. I can still remember the moment I stuck my head down, kicked like mad, made like a windmill, and took my first breath without standing up. But that bit – where it all came together in a spluttering mess – that happened in the school pool.

I doubt if it matters whether primary teachers are any good at swimming instruction. It’s the familiarisation that counts. Most of it’s just practice.

The majority of kids in New Zealand can’t afford swimming lessons. Some can’t afford a trip to the pool.

Meanwhile, according to Water Safety NZ 80% of 14 year olds can’t swim to survive, and about a hundred of us die of drowning each year. So I find it hard to accept that schools have no place giving kids access to safe, supervised swimming practice.

 

Another context for this is that West Auckland has very few swimming pools. In fact, there is one (more or less) at Henderson, consisting of a lane pool which frightens the kids, and a wave pool, which frightens me and the kids.

If you’re at the age where you’re still putting your swimming together, the wave pool is the last place you want to be. It’s chlorinated human soup. A siren goes off every 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of wave action. Often commercial radio blares above the rest of the racket.

When the family wants to take a swim, we drive into the CBD and hang out in the rarified environs of the iconic, historic Tepid Baths. Thats a 17km drive from our house.

So, our primary school is in hock to its pool. It’s a problem we’ve inherited, and one that surely the politicians who funded it, the people who built it, and the teachers who founded it, would never have dreamed of or wished for. Still (as we like to say in 2017), here we are.

Please, give what you can on our give-a-little page. I apologise for the dramatic tone, but the government’s abandoned the whole idea of school pools, and – as a result – someone’s likely to drown in the future.

Thank you to everyone who’s given so far: some of you have been very generous. But this is really a case where every dollar counts.

And if you could like us, share us, and tell people about us, well, that’d be awesome, too.

 

 

We can BYOD for you wholesale

Our intermediate school introduced Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) two years ago, at the same time our oldest daughter arrived in year 7 (what people my age recall as form 1). At that point, the first ipad ever released was just 4 years and 10 months old: not even primary school age. Now, something like half the kids in our decile 8 school have one.

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Total Recall, Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Based on the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K Dick.

The teachers talked us through it at a pre-term meeting. It came down to three lines:

  • Computers are here and more are coming and everyone needs to get used to it pronto
  • Computers help iterative learning by increasing parents’ and teachers’ visibility of student work
  • Computers let kids learn more flexibly in their own mode (textual, visual, audio etc.)

I doubted the veracity of all these statements. Nobody (save for a few) knows how their car works, and that never has the slightest impact on our use of them, nor our ability to profit from that use. Same with computers. I can use a computer ok, and none of my clients have ever doubted it or queried it any more than whether I know how to spell (actually, not that well). Knowing how they work is for other people, who I’m happy to pay for their expertise.

I was also surprised to hear a teacher imply that iterative learning was dependent on computers. I work iteratively all the time. As a design researcher, I sort of specialise in it. It doesn’t require any further knowledge of the internet or computers than it does to write this blog. Usually, considerably less. What it requires is knowledge of people.

As for multi modal learning, well, maybe. But hasn’t the Steiner model been doing that for the thick end of a century?

But I also hold the teaching profession in high regard, so I let them have it without any quarrel. They gave us assurances: not everything would be done on devices. And it’s not really about the device, they said. It’s about the pedagogy. How I love that word. Truly, I was a pushover, offering no more resistance than a curious kitten. And besides, why resist? I asked, they answered. I was actually looking forward to it.

Not long afterwards I learned that whatever iterative pedagogies were going on in the classroom, they were invisible to me. The cloud platform they’d told us about in the pre-term meeting never really eventuated: my log on – when it finally got working – showed me a scroll of school-wide chit chat on endless trivia: the location of today’s netball practice, homework for room such-and-such is due in the box outside Ms Thingumie’s office, etc.

Eventually, the teacher just emailed a few of us keen parents a bit of a list of weekly homework expectations. That worked pretty well. Not exactly iterative, but simple, informative and effective.

But because the homework was still being done on the ipad, it was effectively invisible. We couldn’t see a thing, far less than we would had it been done on paper. Besides, if a teacher wants to teach iteratively, why do they have to do it online? Why not just look at the work? What’s the difference?

As for preparing students for the tsunami of pixels heading their way, I’d seriously doubt that many-if-any kids are better off as a result of BYOD. Actually, they’re worse off. The only outcome, the only thing I can see, as a parent, that it’s doing for my kids is this: Technology is Cool emoji!

BYOD is a big, green light, an endorsement of the highest order from the people with whom she spends the most time, and who carry untold influence on her current and future life choices.

It’s probably the thing we spend the most time arguing about in the house. We declared Sundays screen free (with the exception of night time movies: usually a family event), and I’d rather have the seismic arguments about that, than see my kids lulled into stupefaction by the swampy, highly calorific cultural diet of internet meme after meme after meme.

Then there was the decision over what device to get. School specified either an ipad, a Samsung, or a Chromebook. The ipad seemed the most robust option, so that’s what we got. Great. Only, now the girl’s in high school. It’s the nearest one to us, and even in the same cluster as her intermediate, and they specified a Chromebook. When’s it going to stop?

Again, if there’s any negative outcome from our ignoring this spec, we certainly haven’t been told about it.

Then, one night, since nobody at the intermediate school could or would furnish any research into the pedagogical efficacy of BYOD, I thought I’d try and find some myself. It’s been a long time since I did academic research and I know that a lot of articles get locked up on subscription data bases, but I found nothing. Not one thing, not one article claiming – even vaguely, let alone categorically – any positive learning outcomes from BYOD.

But, after about an hour, I did find a few articles. Few if any of them were interested in the educational impacts of computers. Nearly all of them took the form of advice to teachers looking to integrate BYOD in their school: barriers you can expect to find to BYOD, and how to overcome them.

In the thick of all this I went to a barbecue at our primary school. I casually asked an associate principal what she thought of my prediction: that before our youngest daughter left primary school, that it too would have a compulsory BYOD platform. “No” she said. “This school will never have compulsory BYOD.”

That was reassuring, but only because I misinterpreted her answer. Because, of course, now the primary school has optional BYOD. We opted out, thanks.

I was having a little bleat about that to our year 4 teacher on about day 2 of term. She was interested and sympathetic in the few ideas I had time to share with her. And she said one thing she liked was that having a few devices in the classroom makes it much easier to set up different students with different tasks, and thereby to provide more focused, individualised programmes.

But overall, it feels like the only ones who are really benefitting are the hardware and software companies pedalling all the kit.

It’s all very frustrating. The schools ask us parents to spend more money on our kids computing hardware than on any other single item: not even the “voluntary donation” comes anywhere close to the thousand dollar IT set-up budget per student. And yet the schools appear to have no interest in the impact that school computing has on home life, nor any notion that those who are around when the computer is most often within reach might have something to contribute to how they’re used in school.

Quite simply, I feel like a revenue unit for the Apple corporation.

Where to from here? Now that we’ve come this far, I’m wondering if the worst step the schools have made has been to embrace computers for their pedagogical value. But why not just face up to the fact that the best thing computers can teach is computers? 

Every kid has to bring their PE gear, so they can learn PE. Why not be the same way with computers? If every kid brings a computer, why not teach them to look after themselves properly, not by the digital equivalent of stranger danger mitigation, but by the stuff that matters: code. How to encrypt stuff. How to clean a browser of its history, and its cookies, and why that’s important. What hackers and governments both do with your data. That is where empowerment lies. And, for some, that’s where jobs lie, too.

 

 

Creative risk at Corban Estate

Ok so following on from yesterday’s plug there’s something else worth voting for in The Trusts’ Million Dollar Mission: the Corban Estate Arts Centre (CEAC). A few years ago the wine company Corbans moved on from their premises at the corner of Great North Rd and Swanson Rd. Waitakere City Council purchased the old winery, left almost all of it intact and installed a vast range of artists and art projects into its numerous nooks and crannies.

CEAC has produced a bunch of well known and cool emerging artists across diverse media. Anton Parsons, Lemi Ponifasio, Peter Lange have all been closely associated at some stage; Katie Smith (ok so I’m biased), Numa McKenzie, Jermaine Reihana and Red Leap Theatre are some of my current new favourites, and there’s a huge range of culturally targeted things like Mixit, Pasifika Arts Centre, and the Kakano Youth Arts Collective*, which are as important as they are innovative. There are many, many more.

To put it simply: CEAC simply gets tons of people making tons of art. They hold numerous open days when any one can wander in, talk to the artists, check out the work and buy it if they like, and their kids’ art day is a joyous, multitudinous, thronging mass of – you guessed it – ART. For free.

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Kakano is a programme at CEAC which gets vulnerable young people into art, who might not otherwise have the access, and which has had some great successes. As well as helping people find a voice and make strong cultural connections, they’ve also managed to get some graduates into tertiary art programmes.

So that’s kids off the street, making art; more art overall; positive vocational outcomes; and, oh yeah, it’s also reduced the amount of what some squares call “unwanted” graffiti.

There’s something very powerful about this kind of programme. Sure, it’s good for the young people who take part. But it also has a directly positive impact on our wider culture, because it benefits directly from their artistic contribution to it, such as through the gallery exhibitions, or the public murals (on walls often donated by local businesses) all of which open a window on the young people’s perspectives of West Auckland. And that’s a window which – frankly – we can’t afford to close.

*Actually it’s got a macron over the “a” – making it twice as long i.e. Kaakano – which I have yet to figure out in WordPress.

Optimism at French Bay Yacht Club

My local yacht club is not the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, or anything like it, thank God! No, it’s the French Bay Yacht Club, which sits on poles over the Manukau mudflats. You can sail there within maybe 2 hours of high tide. Outside of that, and you’re walking, knee deep in slime.
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Still there’s a keen young crew there and a happy vibe of nice folks who punch above their weight at national and regional comps. By clicking on this link – today and every day in March – you’re giving them a $5 vote in The Trusts “Million Dollar Mission”. If they hit target, then they can buy some Optimist sailing dinghies to pass on some sailing tricks to the youngsters. How awesome is that? It’s totally awesome. 
But it needs your vote! That’ll be the only donation you make all year that won’t cost you a cent. This is why us westies don’t mind keeping the booze out of the supermarkets: so folks like you – anyone – can then tell The Trusts (who sell the booze) what to do with the proceeds.
Cheers!

Solar eclipse

There was this time when I was a kid and I was riding my bike off to my piano lesson. Riding along, I noticed something weird. I had two shadows, kind of like a 3D movie image without the glasses. I looked again. Still there. I got off my bike, feeling like Peter Pan, with this extra shadow stuck to me. What the hell!

Well, nothing I could do about it. I carried on, slightly spooked, sat through my lesson, slightly distracted, and rode home, weirdly, with the mystifying effect vanished.

Later than night, there was a news item, some kind of eclipse.

There’s one happening now, as I type this, you can watch it here, and right now (9.50 am, NZDT) it looks like this:

eclipse

ETNZ update: pedal power

Grant Dalton copped various blames for Emirates Team New Zealand’s loss to Oracle in the 2014 Americas Cup: in particular, his agreement to the lay day and his on-board role drew flak. There’s little chance we’ll see him crewing on the new boat, the lay day is no-doubt a learning experience. And one other thing is noticeably different in this edition: ETNZ’s media output.

In 2014, they crowed about their quantum developments in foiling. Armchair sailors like me watched avidly as ETNZ made thrilling breakthroughs that reinvented sailing almost as much as Russell Coutts’s new multi-hull formula.

In fact, Coutts’s contribution – to ditch slow, heavy monohulls for light, fast catamarans – was only half the story. ETNZ did the work to get foiling happening, and also, to prove that the losses in directional stability were more than compensated for by overall speed. I wouldn’t be surprised if – lacking a resident billionaire – ETNZ told an open-media story for the benefit of existing and potential sponsors.

But of course, it also gave ETNZ’s opposition an open window to gaze through. Months ahead of their own build commitments, the defender and the other challengers could all see which way ETNZ was heading.

This time round, there’s less crowing about breakthroughs and more general backstory: team member profiles, sponsor plugs, and time lapse videos of the bits in between: rigging, crew briefings, people in hi vis and rocking their multi-tools. Occasionally, there’s a bit of sailing, but usually only a few frames, and often in the distance.

So it was a cool surprise to see learn something tangible about the new boat just three months out from AC racing proper: they’ve replaced the coffee grinder winches with foot pedals. Ok!

cycling-etnz

It’s hard not to imagine their feet driving little propellors when you see them lined up like The Goodies. So what are they about, really?

Things are different these days. It’s not just a matter of a sheet to control the sail angle, and a few lines to control sail shape. Much of the critical configuration from moment to moment is adjusted through hydraulic pressure. Racing yachts have used hydraulics for decades, which is fine by the rules as long as the hydraulic pressure is human generated.

But in these new catamarans, with wing sails and hydrofoils, hydraulics are bigger than ever. For example, ETNZ’s near capsize in San Francisco was a direct result of failed hydraulic pressure. In the middle of a tack, the wing ran out of hydraulic pressure and back-winded on the new tack, causing the massive stall-out.

And hydraulics are critical for fast, efficient foiling. This is – all competitors agree – the name of the game. The one who foils best will probably sail fastest. The primary speed goal for all crews is to sail an entire race without anything but foils in the water. Once they achieve that, they’ll have a big speed advantage over anyone who can’t.

And, once achieved, those who crack the holy grail of continuous, non-stop foiling will then move on to new areas: initiating foiling in lower wind conditions; foiling safely in much higher wind conditions; optimising their course-made-good (because these boats are so fast, they never sail straight downwind, but across the wind, making for complex geometry).

In San Francisco, Oracle’s ultimate speed edge was achieved through the installation of flight controllers which could adjust the pitch, angle and cant of the foils in the same way they do on a commercial jet: frequently, constantly, and super-accurately. And that takes power.

So, the hope for ETNZ will be that by delivering more power to the foil controllers, they’ll be able to control the foils faster and more accurately. Not only that, but the foils themselves may be faster too. It could be that with more power, the crew can get more lift out of a smaller foil with less drag than a bigger foil.

Someone always comes up with some radical innovation in the America’s Cup. Australia II revolutionised keel design. Another Australian boat had a super bendy mast that created a few square feet of extra (stretchy) sail area. New Zealand’s first attempt in 1987 made use of new construction materials. And in 2014 New Zealand pioneered hydrofoils.

Some critics have said they’ve looked at pedals, and discarded them due to ergonomic loss. I think what they meant was, these boats are fiddly enough at the best of times, so the last thing you want to do as you run for your life from one side to the other is to insert yourself into some kind of bike-like contraption. Maybe there is a cost in power-generation coming out of the tacks and gybes. Well, if nothing else, that could make the start sequences interesting.

At any rate, one thing is clear. At the end of ETNZ’s own video for the launch of the new boat, there’s a single, uninterrupted shot of the boat sailing. It’s foiling along nicely. Then it bears away a few degrees, picks up speed and goes through a perfect, foiling tack. It feels like a little statement to fans and competitors.

I wish we could see more. But it looks as though that’s going to require a Sky subscription, which I really can’t be bothered with. So those of you who have one can expect some visits from me in three months time.